Executives and employees participating in employee benefit plans in Chicago received a reminder this week about why it is important to keep track of your benefit plans’ beneficiary designations, and update those designations when appropriate. Many people may think they can enter into binding agreements with others, such as family members or former spouses, about entitlement to or waiver of benefits under an employee benefit plan, like a pension or life insurance. However, if the plan is one covered by ERISA, those agreements, even if part of an agreed court order, will have no bearing on what the benefit plan administrator does with any proceeds if inconsistent with the beneficiary designation.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reiterated this point in Jackman Financial Corp. v. Humana Insurance Co., No. 10-2112, Slip Op. (7th Cir. May 31, 2011). In that case, Mr. Torrence was a participant in a group term life insurance policy offered through his employer, and named his brother as the sole beneficiary. Mr. Torrence and his brother both died in the same car accident, at the same time. Mr. Torrence’s mother, the executor of his estate, contracted with Jackman Financial for Jackman to finance the funeral, and accept assignment of the life insurance proceeds in return. The policy, however, contained a clause granting the administrator discretion to name a beneficiary from a class of family members in the event the named beneficiary died at the same time as the participant. Jackman Financial sued, alleging it had a right to the money. The District Court entered judgment in favor of the insurer, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision.
Plan administrators, such as Humana in this case, have an obligations to follow the terms of the employee benefit plan. ERISA § 404(a)(1)(D). This case may not appear to present such an injustice, but it is a reiteration of Kennedy v. Dupont, No. 07-636, Slip. Op. (S. Ct. 2009). There, a state domestic relations court entered a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) acknowledging a former spouse’s disclaimer of any interest in her ex-husband’s employer-sponsored retirement plan. However, the participant never removed his former wife’s name from the beneficiary designation on file with the plan administrator. After the participant passed away, his children demanded the retirement plan’s assets because the former spouse waived her interest. The administrator, however, administered the plan according to the documents and instruments on file–which included a beneficiary designation naming the former spouse. The children thus could not recover the proceeds from the plan.
The same thing happened this past week in the Jackman case, though admittedly in a less sympathetic fashion. However, it demonstrates the importance of monitoring your beneficiary designations, because the plan administrator will not try to figure out your true intentions if you pass away; it will distribute funds to whomever you last designated. If you need advice about your employee benefit plan, call an ERISA lawyer.